The Natural History Society of Northumbria has two significant mummies in its Egyptian collections. The exquisitely decorated and intact mummy of Bakt-en-Hor (previously Bakt-hor-nekht) and the unwrapped 22nd dynasty mummy of Irtyru (previously Irt-irw), both from the ancient city of Thebes.
Our mummies have excited the interest of generations of visitors and in the early days crowds of people from the local community flocked to see the blackened remains of the unwrapped Irtyru. The early superstitions that mummies were cursed and brought bad luck fuelled some of this curiosity. Visitors to the Hancock’s original Egyptian gallery talked of the eeriness of seeing Irtyru standing upright in her cartonnage in the narrow wall mounted glass display case – almost at eye-level. This was added to by tales of the mummy walking the corridors of the museum at night and there was great disquiet when her hand fell off and lay at her feet for a few weeks. The 1940s horror movie ‘The Mummy’s Hand’ added to the unease.
Below is an extract of an interview given by Eric Morton, formerly Taxidermist at the Hancock Museum, to the Society’s Archivist, June Holmes, in which they discuss the Strange Case of the Mummy’s Hand.
Today, visitors to our museum are much more informed about Egyptian remains and our mummies are now tastefully displayed in the recently refurbished Ancient Egyptians Gallery with accurately researched information.
Bakt-en-Hor was the first mummy to come to Newcastle, brought back in 1821 by a gentleman traveller, Thomas Coates of Lipwood House, Haydon Bridge. She came from Gurna, the elite cemetery on the west bank of the ancient capital of Thebes (the modern city of Luxor). Thomas Coates was an army surgeon working in India who had travelled home overland. He reportedly saw the mummy being disinterred in Gurna and bought it on site. Coates presented the mummy to the Literary and Philosophical Society. When the Hancock Museum opened in 1884, the Natural History Society purchased the collections of the ‘Newcastle Museum’ then housed at the Lit & Phil.
The inscription on the cartonnage was first translated by Jean- François Champollion by correspondence in 1823 and published in the Newcastle Magazine (1824, vol 3, p. 92). A more recent translation by John Taylor, assistant keeper of ancient Egypt & Sudan at the British Museum reads: ‘An offering which the king gives to Re-Harakhty, chief of the gods [to] Atum, lord of the two lands, [and to] Osiris, Foremost of the Westerners, so that he may give offerings and provisions to the Osiris, the Lady of the House, Baket-en-her, daughter of the God’s father Nakhtefmut, justified’.
Bakt-en-Hor has never been unwrapped and remains in her linen mummy wrappings, enclosed in a painted cartonnage (layers of plastered linen moulded to the shape of the body). The cartonnage is painted with scenes from the Book of the Dead and with an inscription down the centre of the lower half. The mummy was contained in a separate wooden (sycamore) anthropoid coffin, covered with resin, making the inscription barely legible. It dates to the 21st-22nd Dynasties (about 1069-715 BC).
Bakt-en-Hor underwent a full Computerised Tomography (CT) scan at Newcastle General Hospital, from which it was learned that she was 5ft tall and had a full set of teeth, including wisdom teeth, and no signs of arthritis or bone disease, which suggests she was between 21 and 35 when she died. A substance found on her teeth may have been painted on as a cosmetic exercise after her face was damaged during embalming.
To read a scan of the Society’s copy of the initial report on this research, accession number NEWMH : 2016.H147, please click here. This work was later published as Watson, E., & Myers, M. (1993). The Mummy of Baket-en-her-nakht in the Hancock Museum: A Radiological Update. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 79, 179-187.
The mummy of Irtyru was purchased in Paris in 1825 by John Bowes Wright (1780-1836) of Haydon Bridge in Northumberland, and presented along with her two coffins to the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society in 1826. She was bought from an auction of the collection of Baron Dominique Vivant Denon, lots 241-243 in the sale catalogue.
Baron Denon collected the mummy in Egypt in 1789-90 when he was part of the scholarly expedition that accompanied Napoleon’s campaign. When Napoleon invaded Alexandria on July 1st 1798 he took with him the now famous Commission of Arts and Science to chronicle Egypt and its antiquities. One of the artists among these scholars and scientists was Dominique Denon, a young Frenchman whose interest in ancient Egypt became a passion. He began to amass his own collection by sending back to France items of interest, including an adult female mummy. Denon published an account of his travels ‘Voyages dans la Bas et la Haute Egypte’ in 1817 and went on to become the first director of the Louvre, founding their Egyptian Gallery.
The mummy was unwrapped and examined by three Newcastle surgeons (Thomas Michael Greenhow, John Baird and Sir John Fife) in 1830. The Y-shaped incision in her stomach dates from the post mortem carried out then. Bandages weighing 22.5 kg were removed but contained no amulets. The examination revealed that her brain and internal organs were not removed before embalming. This is not unusual, but simply one of the approaches employed at the time. She is thought to have been middle aged and the cause of her death was not determined by the ‘autopsy’.
Modern study reveals that Irtyru was a middle-aged female (approx. 30 years old). Her body exhibits no trauma; some hair, all teeth and all viscera are intact, though two toes on her right foot are missing and the left hand which had become detached, see above, has been re-attached. She was buried in a double sarcophagus of two wooden (sycamore) coffins with painted lids, both of which were covered in bitumen resin. Irt-irw dates to the early 22nd Dynasty (about 900 BC).